After waiting six weeks for a literary agent to respond to my manuscript, and unwisely pinning on her my hopes for success, I got the rejection email: “We don’t think you have enough of a platform yet to support a book like this.” In other words, no one knows me, no one cares what I have to say, and now I’m going to sit at the kitchen table and cry and say petulant, ridiculous things.
“I was voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’,” I spat bitterly, “and I’m not.”
G. gestured toward our 18-month-old and looked at me pointedly.
“That’s not anything!” I protested. “Anybody can make a baby!”
“Look at him!” G. argued. “He’s special! He might be a genius!”
J. had peanut butter all over his face and with a devilish grin was rubbing bits of chewed apple into his hair.
“I shouldn’t have reached!” I sobbed. “What did I expect? Why did I think that anybody would care what I have to say? I’m from a hick town! I’m lucky I made it as far as I did!”
G. was just looking at me.
“Well fine! Fuck it! I mean—“ I revised, mindful of the emergent English language user in the household—“piss on it. Pee on it.”
G. continued to stare at me. He does this when he’s at a loss for words and doesn’t know what will calm me down and what will send me into a fresh round of weeping and flailing. He’s only being safe, but I can’t stand it when he stares at me.
“Stop LOOKING at me! I’m going upstairs!”
“What about teaching?” G. called after me.
“Oh, I’m sure my lesson on misplaced modifiers has changed more than a few lives!” I yelled back.
That I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in high school is true, although I haven’t thought of it in years and have no idea why it was the first thought to spring to mind after getting my rejection letter. I aimlessly googled “Most Likely to Succeed” and found an article from the Wall Street Journal from a couple of years ago in which columnist Sue Shellenbarger called the title a “burden.” In an interview on NPR about the article, Shellenbarger said that some recipients of the title felt confined by what she called “the high school interpretation of success”: “You rise to the top of your field. You make a lot of money. You become famous.”
Her definition of “success” looks a lot like what I feel I have to attain in order to please the people from my past. If I haven’t won any teaching awards or risen to some sort of supervisory position in education, I’m not doing enough. If I haven’t published a book and become a writer that people “know,” I’m not doing enough.
Somehow, I still have the middle-school mentality of “everyone is looking at me.” I know they’re not; they’re all living their own lives, and if they think of the nerd from high school at all, it’s fleetingly and with only mild curiosity. No one is sitting in front of Facebook with a beer and a bag of popcorn, laughing and pointing and saying, “Ha! Abby Byrd hasn’t done anything!” (I think. I mean, maybe, but probably not. My narcissism has limits.)
Almost no one—I’m sure—even remembers who was voted MLTS. But I’m still afraid to see people from high school, afraid that nothing I could tell them about my life would be good enough. Money? I’m a teacher, for shit’s sake, so I don’t have any of that. We’re doing well enough, but only because we have two incomes. Were I still single, I could never support a household on my salary. Even though I have more education than most people my age, I earn less. Teachers know this going in; they choose the profession for other reasons. And although I love going to work every day, I have no delusions about how people regard my profession. For what many consider a “noble” profession, teaching is deplorably low-status. And kids, regardless of their socioeconomic status, know it. I’ve had a kid tell me he’d rather work in fast food than earn a teacher’s pay. (To be fair, I may have instigated this remark by saying something inflammatory and arguably racist about chalupas.) Even the kids from the affluent families in the community where I now teach look at me like they wonder what I’ve done wrong to end up standing in front of them. I think they believe I can’t really be smart, because a person of great ability would never choose to be a teacher.
Richard Hofstadter discusses this phenomenon in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. He lays it out pretty clearly:
Teachers are recruited from the top of the lower half of the population. Upper and upper-middle class persons almost universally reject teaching as a vocation. Teachers frequently resort, during the school year or their summer “vacations,” to low-status jobs to supplement their teaching incomes… They come from culturally constricted lower- or middle-class homes, where the Saturday Evening Post or the Reader’s Digest is likely to be the characteristic reading matter.
“American adolescents,” Hofstadter goes on to say, “have more sympathy than admiration for their teachers.”
I’ve never told anyone that I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” except my eighth graders, one year when we were doing an end-of-year “quiz.” We teachers provided facts about themselves, and students had to guess which teacher belonged with each fact. I was reading the answers, and when I said that I belonged with “Voted Most Likely to Succeed,” something happened that I’ll never forget. The entire group of eighth graders laughed. This was a group that I felt close to, with whom I felt I had been very successful, and it all happened so fast that I allowed myself to feel ashamed only for a second.
There was one kid who did not laugh. A kid whom I loved dearly, who was smart and artistic and creative but didn’t perform very well in English. That week, I’d given him a sketchbook with an earnest plea to always keep writing. As the rest of the group hooted, his face was serious. A few days after school ended, I got this email from him:
To my all- time favorite teacher,
Thank you so much for the book! I will write a book and if it ever gets published… I will dedicate it to you. Thank you very much for helping me throughout this year. You inspired me to become a better person and a writer.
I notice a lot of people say “Keep in touch” at the end of school, but rarely is their word true. But in our case, connections last forever.
Those words prove that what I’m doing with my life is enough. I don’t know how people from high school would define success. I don’t even know how to define it. But I know that I want to be valued, to be important—and I feel this way when I’m connecting with people through teaching and through writing. Getting laughed at by 13-year-olds and dismissed by a literary agent deal heavy blows to my sense of self-worth. They both say, “You’re not important enough.” That was why I lashed out, cried, said my beautiful, amazing toddler was “not anything,” and maligned my own (pretty fucking fabulous, possibly life-altering) lesson on misplaced modifiers.
I want, also, not to die, but since that can’t be arranged I’ll settle for achieving immortality through some figurative means. Anthropologist Ernest Becker aptly referred to this human need as an “immortality project.” Teaching, writing, and parenting are my immortality projects, and when they’re not going well, I start feeling the terror of not existing. Maybe that’s success–being remembered, making an impact that lasts when one’s physical body is gone. (So I want to be important to other people, and I don’t want to die? *smh* I’m a terrible Buddhist. Although with my highly developed since of guilt and penchant for neurotic rambling, I’d probably make a great Jew.)
As I was writing this, I remembered how I felt in high school, how I didn’t want to be different. I just wanted everyone to know I was a regular person, that I was lonely and afraid and not perfect and honestly, not even that smart. Why am I so concerned with standing out and being special when all I ever wanted was to blend in? It’s a strange paradox: when I get published, I think, people will understand me, and they’ll know that I’m just like them.
It’s been twenty years since high school, and still, that’s all it comes down to: I’ll finally fit in.